Types of burns and the burn healing process
We’ve all had a sunburn or accidentally touched a hot pan while pulling it out of the oven. Most burns are minor and heal on their own in a couple weeks. However, severe burns can cause painful symptoms and serious complications if left untreated.
At the Regions Hospital Burn Center, we treat all degrees and types of burns (first-degree burns, second-degree burns and third-degree burns) for patients of all ages. We’re the only burn center in the Upper Midwest that offers comprehensive telemedicine burn consultations. Learn more about the different types of burns, how they heal and when to seek medical care.
There are three degrees of burns: first-degree burns (superficial burns), second-degree burns (partial-thickness burns) and third-degree burns (full-thickness burns). These burn classifications are based on how deeply the skin is burned.
Different types of burns
There are several different kinds of burns: thermal burns, radiation burns, chemical burns, electrical burns, friction burns and cold burns (frostbite).
Thermal burns are probably what you think of when you hear the word “burn.” They’re caused by an external heat source like an open flame, a hot stove, scalding water or steam.
Radiation burns are exactly what they sound like, burns caused by exposure to radiation. A sunburn is the most common form of radiation burn, but radiation therapy, and unprotected exposure to X-rays can cause burns.
Chemical burns are caused when part of the body is exposed to chemicals, including household chemicals like bleach.
Electrical burns are caused when electric currents contact your skin. Because the electric current travels through your tissue, electrical burns often look less severe on the surface than they actually are.
When the skin rubs against something abrasive the friction can cause heat. The combination of heat and friction may cause a burn. Common friction burns are rug burns, road rash and sports injuries from sliding across grass, turf or a gym floor.
At the Burn Center, we also treat patients who are recovering from frostbite injuries. Frostbite is caused when extreme cold temperatures damage the skin. You might get a cold burn from being outside in cold temperatures without proper covering, direct skin-to-skin contact with an ice pack for a long time, or exposure to high winds and high altitudes.
When you are burned, you experience pain because the heat has damaged or destroyed skin cells. Minor burns heal much the same way cuts heal.
If a burn is moderate, a blister often forms over the injured area. Under it, white blood cells arrive to attack the bacteria, and a new layer of skin starts to grow in from the edges of the burn.
If a burn is very large or goes very deep, it can be dangerous. The new skin cannot form quickly enough to keep the bacteria out and an infection usually develops. As a result, serious burns are often treated with skin grafts to cover the wound.
What to expect during the burn healing process
Each burn heals a little differently. Understanding the different parts of the healing process can help you know what to expect during your recovery.
After a burn, the skin will repair itself. Areas of thickened skin over a healed wound are called
Sometimes, scars can form across a joint. When this happens, your range of motion will be limited in that area of the body. This happens because wounds become smaller as they heal, causing the skin to grow tight (contracture). Through therapy, it is possible to gain back much of the motion that was lost as a result of the injury.
A contracture is when the skin over your burn tightens during the healing process. It occurs when the burn is deeper in the skin, damaging or destroying the skin collagen, blood vessels and other parts of the skin that promote healing, making it difficult to cover the open wound.
In this case, the body closes the wound by drawing on the surrounding skin. As the wound heals, it actually becomes smaller.
The contraction process often results in a loss of normal movement for the affected area.
If a burn injury damages the nerve endings in the skin, the nerves will need to regrow. The regrowth of your nerves can affect your sense of touch. Touch is experienced through the skin and damage to nerves can make your skin less sensitive. These changes can be temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of your burn.
Perspiration after a burn
A burn injury can damage the sweat glands and blood vessels on the skin. Blood vessels surrounded by scar tissues can’t expand and contract properly to control the flow of blood to the burned area. Damaged sweat glands can’t make moisture on the surface of the skin like they did prior to injury.
Because of the changes in the sweat glands, many burn survivors experience itching and abnormal sweating as their burn injuries finish healing.
Skin color after a burn injury
After a burn injury, the area of burned skin may be a different color than your normal skin tone. The color of the wound will gradually decrease and fade as the skin matures. It generally takes one to three years to finish healing and for skin to fade to a near-normal color.
Depending on the severity of your burn, we might recommend several different burn treatments.
Burns heal best in a covered, moist environment. We’ll use bandages and wound dressings to keep your injury protected. In most cases, we’ll recommend baths to keep the burn site clean and help remove damaged tissue. Our team will also prescribe pain medicines and ointments to help keep you comfortable during your recovery.
Depending on the severity or placement of your burn, we might also recommend casts, splints, face masks, compression garments or skin grafts. Occupational and physical therapy for burns are also used in many treatment plans to help you improve your range of motion after a severe burn.
Your burn team will examine your burn and guide you toward the treatments that will be most effective for you.
When to see a doctor for burn injuries
While most burns heal on their own, more severe injuries need medical treatment in order to heal properly. If you have blisters, severe pain, swelling or skin discoloration on your burn injury, you should visit a doctor. Any minor burns that don’t heal within two weeks should also be checked by a doctor.
You should seek immediate medical treatment if you think you have a third-degree burn.